The Sealey Challenge - Simon Armitage


I had to double check myself re an idea I had about Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches (Faber & Faber 1993). So I Googled, and yes, I had remembered it correctly. The 30 fourteen-line poems/sonnets in the first section are each, supposedly, meant to be read in the time it takes for a match to burn. I guess the clue is in the opening stanza of the first poem:

“My party piece:
I strike, then from the moment when the matchstick
conjures up its light, to when the brightness moves
beyond its means, and dies, I say the story
of my life —”

Well, you just have to, don’t you?! My first match burnt out after a few lines and I realised the draft from my writing room door that opens onto the garden was to blame. My second attempt, different poem, had a second or two to spare. My third one had me squealing and blowing it out as the flame licked at my fingertips a couple of lines before the end.

But gimmicks apart, I like the poems in this collection. I like Armitage’s command of form and language, of rhythm and rhyme, and how none of those ever dominate the poems, only contribute to their music. What he has to say always transcends the engineering work. I feel he understands that the audience matters. He’s a poet that cares about his readers. The work can be both playful and serious. Serious but not solemn.

And if I hadn’t liked the collection of my own accord, I would have made myself like it after reading about poet Ruth Padel’s unfavourable review in which she said that praise for the book had come from mainly non-poets. Because that’s brownie points for me. The mainstream poetry world can be, in my experience, unpleasantly incestuous, with poets so often writing for and reading to other poets. To reach a non-poet audience seems like an admirable achievement.

I lost track of his work as Poet Laureate, maybe because his appointment in 2019 was so quickly followed by the Covid years and subsequent life events that took my full attention. But I want to read more of him now. Especially some of the poems mentioned in his Wiki bio: poems about the 1969 moon landing, those commissioned by the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Astronomical Society, about mental health, the Antarctic, the 100th anniversary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior, lives lost to Covid, in celebration of national parks and open spaces, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So many. So diverse. 

I went running with my ladies’ running group yesterday morning and as we crossed a field at the foot of the North Downs I picked up a piece of flint, one of thousands that were scattered across the fields mixed in with the sandy clay.

So I’ve picked Armitage’s poem, ‘On the Trail of the Old Ways’ to share with you, as he mentions flint, and because I had such a strong feeling of gratitude for the landscape yesterday, how lucky I was to be able to run through it, and partly along The Pilgrim’s Way. A literal trail of the old ways.

 (I’ve also added a ‘Matchstick’ poem for you to have fun with fire, if you want to 🔥)